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Friday 11 October 2019 5:54pm

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Professor Konai Helu-Thaman (Professor of Pacific Education and Culture, University of the South Pacific) gave an insightful keynote presentation entitled "Lata Noa ‘i Moana: creating spaces and places in higher education."

The University of Otago’s Pacific Academic Staff Caucus (PASC) held its inaugural symposium, at the Dunedin campus on 27 September.

In addition to staff presentations, the symposium featured senior Pacific keynote speakers Professor Konai Helu-Thaman (University of the South Pacific in Fiji) and Dr Cherie Chu (Victoria University Wellington), who focussed on navigating the academy, and were helpful in supporting PASC’s aims of discussing strategic directions for Pacific research and issues which impact staff.

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Dr Patrick Vakaoti

PASC, which formally launched in July 2016, supports teaching and research excellence for Pacific staff at Otago while staying in tune with Pacific peoples’ world-views and aspirations.

Organisers Dr Allamanda Faatoese (University of Otago, Christchurch) and Dr Patrick Vakaoti (Sociology, Gender Studies and Criminology programme) say the symposium provided an opportunity to engage in critical conversations about the place and future of Pacific research at Otago, which is an integral part of the Otago Pacific Strategic Framework 2013-2020 (PSF).

“As the PSF nears the end of its current ‘life’, it is important to discuss its future parameters from the viewpoint of Pacific academics, and academics with an interest in Pacific issues and communities,” Dr Vakaoti says.

PASC Chair Dr Ramona Tiatia says in addition to presentations from academics on a range of Pacific-oriented topics, discussion at the symposium revolved around developing critical pathways “for growing and retaining Pacific academic research and teaching staff”.

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Dr Ramona Tiatia (University of Otago, Wellington) and (right) Dr Diane Ruwhiu (University of Otago, Dunedin) held a seminar session entitled “The ground we stand on: Joining forces to navigate the tertiary space at Otago.”

“This needs to be made a stronger priority at Otago and at all tertiary institutions. It is a concern given New Zealand Universities statistics show Otago is ranked at 6th to 7th with respect to Pacific academic full-time-equivalent (FTEs) positions, and this doesn’t maintain parity with the growth rates of enrolled students.”

Dr Tiatia, who is based at the University of Otago’s Wellington campus in the Department of Public Health, says a symposium highlight was having Te Poutama Māori co-chair Diane Ruwhiu address the Pacific academics.

“We share a lot of similar problems and Te Poutama have led the way on priorities for academics. Being a Pacific academic can be very rewarding – but there are also many challenges that staff encounter working within ‘soft’ research funding environments or managing teaching workloads. They also make important contributions of time and expertise to support Pacific students, and their respective Pacific communities,” Dr Tiatia says.

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(At left) Dr Michelle Schaaf (Te Tumu) with keynote speaker Dr Cherie Chu (Victoria University Wellington).

As a symbolic gesture of manaakitanga between the respective professional groups, PASC presented Te Poutama with a gift.

A priority for Pacific and Māori staff is to be supported into promotional and confirmation pathways, and affirmative action programmes are important in “building equitable pathways”. Discussion at events like the symposium may help address these issues, and retain many high-quality completing Pacific PhD students and Postdoctoral and Research Fellows who leave academia completely or go overseas, she says.

“The University’s vision is to grow Otago as a vibrant and dynamic academy in the Pacific region, so we really need professional peer support networks, such as PASC, to talk about topics that matter, and find solutions to problems that affect our Pacific staff.” 

Below: Delegates, guests and Otago academics at the PASC inaugural symposium. 

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